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Fact V Fiction: Joe Orton and Prick Up Your Ears



Whitney Houston & Bobbi Kristina

Joe Orton, playwright and icon of the swinging sixties, developed from a shy, inarticulate man to become a life-licking queen, whose reign was extinguished by lover and would-be Svengali, Kenneth Halliwell.

In real life:
For all of their years together, Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell lived in a cramped room in the north of London, up near the Angel tube stop where everything seems closer to hell. Even after Orton became famous, when his plays were hits, he was winning awards and his picture was in the papers, he came home to the tiny hovel where Halliwell was waiting.

When they met, Orton was 17, Halliwell was 25 and they both wanted to be novelists. They were homosexuals, but sex never seemed to be at the heart of their relationship. They lived together, but Orton prowled the night streets for rough trade and Halliwell scolded him for taking too many chances. Orton was, by all accounts, a charming young man — liked by everybody, impish, rebellious, with a taste for danger. Little did he think that the greatest danger was within his own four walls.

One night Orton came home and Halliwell hammered him to death before killing himself.

Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina as Orton and Halliwell in Prick Up Your Ears

Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina as Orton and Halliwell.

In reel life:
The truly authentic film is directed by Stephen Frears and based on John Lahr’s 1978 biography with a screenplay by Alan Bennett.

Gary Oldman portrays Orton with uncanny flair, while mentor and lover Kenneth Halliwell is played by Alfred Molina, whose performance was equally marvellous.

Starting from the discovery of Orton and Halliwell dead in their Islington bedsit on 9 August 1967, Alan Bennett’s screenplay tells the story in flashback, using as a framework John Lahr’s research for his biography and his meetings with Peggy Ramsay, who took Orton’s diaries and hid them until persuaded by Lahr to part with them.